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Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson) Paperback – March 6, 1991

4.7 out of 5 stars 486 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The second installment in a projected four-volume biography of LBJ that opened with The Path to Power, Means of Ascent shines a harsh light on the early political years of one of America's most paradoxical presidents. The man who would later ram civil rights legislation through a reluctant Congress, and then be brought down by Vietnam, came out of a political swamp--Caro gives a graphic picture of the Texas democratic political machine at its most corrupt. The climax of the book is LBJ's election to the Senate in 1948, an election he won by 87 dubious votes out of almost a million. That vote arguably changed history. This book won the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.


"Thrilling. Caro burns into the reader's imagination the story of the [1948 Senate] election. Never has it been told so dramatically, with breathtaking detail piled on incredible development . . . In The Path to Power, Volume I of his monumental biography, Robert A. Caro ignited a blowtorch whose bright flame illuminated Johnson's early career. In Means of Ascent he intensifies the flame to a brilliant blue point." --Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times

"Brilliant. No brief review does justice to the drama of the story Caro is telling, which is nothing less than how present-day politics was born." --Henry F. Graff, Professor of History, Columbia University

"Riveting . . . Explosive . . . Readers are in for a white-knuckle, hair-raising tale that could have ended in any of a dozen ways, with L.B.J. in the White House the longest shot of all. This is good history. Caro's treatment achieves poetic intensity." --Paul Gray, Time

"Caro has a unique place among American political biographers. He has become, in many ways, the standard by which his fellows are measured. Caro's diligence [and] ambition are phenomenal . . . A remarkable story . . . Epic." --Mark Feeney, Boston Sunday Globe

"Immensely engaging . . . Caro is an indefatigable investigative reporter and a skillful historian who can make the most abstract material come vibrantly to life. [He has a] marvelous ability to tell a story . . . His analysis of how power is used---to build highways and dams, to win elections, to get rich---is masterly." --Ronald Steel, New York Times Book Review

"Caro has changed the art of political biography." --Nicholas von Hoffman

"A spellbinding, hypnotic journey into the political life and times of Lyndon Johnson. Riveting drama." --Jim Finley, Los Angeles Times

"The most compelling study of American political power and corruption since Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.... It is nothing less than a political epic, the definitive account of a watershed election, rich with all of the intrigue and drama that have become the stuff of legend. [It has] the suspense of a political thriller." --Steve Neal, Fort Worth Star Telegram

"Magnificent . . . Thunder and lightning rip through Mr. Caro's viscerally compelling work."  --Thomas W. Hazlett, The Wall Street Journal

"His research is dazzlingly exhaustive, his gripping story is enhanced by excellent writing, and his findings [seem] largely irrefutable. No one has done a better job of researching [the 1948 race] than Mr. Caro. He has produced a portrait not only of Lyndon Johnson, but also of the politics and values of mid-century America." --Philip Seib, Dallas Morning News

"Robert Caro gives us an LBJ who was human and then some, and what's enthralling is how this lucid, fascinating book keeps forcing us to confront the extreme contradictions of what (on good days) we call human nature. It's a testament to Robert Caro's skill that we find it so difficult to get a firm moral fix on Johnson. Caro is that rare biographer who seems intrigued by his subject but happily free from the urge to either heroicize, psychologize—or excoriate and punish." --Francine Prose, 7 Days

"Means of Ascent is a political biography, a detective story, a western and a character study. Above all, it is a richly textured, multilayered chronicle of a fundamental social and political change and how this change highlighted elements of Mr. Johnson's character: his powerful needs, tremendous ambition and particular genius." --Robert A. Kronley, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"One can trust every detail. The sagaciousness and discretion of Caro's investigations are obvious from the start. The story of that election has all the excitement of a murder mystery in which the culprit is known, but the question is whether justice will triumph. Caro tells it with the same thriller instinct as the old novelists, yet with the passion for accuracy of the most exacting detective." --Denis Wadley, Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune   

"A great book, and I believe the completed biography will be the great book about American politics in the twentieth century. The story of the '48 election is remarkable, unique. If it weren't a cliche, I'd say it has Tolstoyan epic grandeur." --Robert K. Massie

"Caro's writing summons a reviewer's cliches—gripping, compelling, absorbing, irresistible . . . unputdownable. The sentences sparkle. The details pile up in a mountain of evidence . . . Caro has at last set the record straight." --Richard Marius, Harvard Magazine

"A spellbinding political thriller . . . riveting." --Arthur Salm, San Diego Tribune

"Extraordinary and brilliant . . . Devastatingly persuasive . . . Caro's prodigious research, and his discovery of original sources ignored by other biographers, proves beyond doubt that much of what Johnson said about these years was false . . . The spadework combined with Caro's passion makes for drama more riveting than any novel." --Mark A. Gamin, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"We who are alive today are privileged to be present at the creation of what, when it is completed, may rank as the most riveting and disturbing American political biography of this century . . . Magnificently written." --Theodore M. O'Leary, Kansas City Star

"Caro is the premier biographer of our time." --Bernard D. Nossiter, The Progressive

"No one understands Lyndon Baines Johnson without reading Robert A. Caro." --James F. Vesely, Sacramento Union

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 6, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067973371X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679733713
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (486 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #53,561 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on April 30, 2005
Format: Paperback
I loved "The Path to Power" but I held off on reading this volume because I could not understand why Caro would devote an entire volume to seven years in LBJ's life. After I read this book, I have no doubt that this decision was a good one. These years--particularly the 1948 Democratic Senatorial Primary--were some of the most historically significant events on the last hundred years. It was this election that perhaps more than any other lay the foundation for politics as we know it. Without the eventual win in this election, Caro argues that LBJ's political career would have been finished. If that were true, he never would have gone on to be president. And if that did not happen, one most ask would Vietnam or "The Great Society" ever have happened quite the way they did. Caro is very convincing in arguing that this dramatic election is one of the most important in U.S. History.

Aside from the significance of the year, I would like to emphasize what a truly exciting read this volume is. I was utterly enthralled to read about what unfolded next in the battle for the democratic candidacy for Texas' senatorial seat. This in spite of the fact that everyone reading the book already knows the outcome. Many have said that this is a hatchet job on LBJ. While this is not a positive portrait of LBJ as a moral figure, it praises him highly as a calculating politician--possibly one of the greatest of all times. The other thing to remember is that Caro is highlighting an election in 1940s Texas, which has always been notorious for corruption in politics (witness the cartoonish and stranger-than-fiction Pappy O'Daniel). The difference in this case was that Coke Stevenson was not as willing to accept that corruption as LBJ was.
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Format: Hardcover
Thank God for Robert Caro, who is a brilliant researcher, complier of facts and an outstanding writer. His way with words is leagues ahead of other historical biographers, he writes with the flair of a novelist but he backs up his words with years of dilligent research. What other biographer pulls up stakes and lives for *five years* in the Texas hill country in order to better understand his subject? This first volume stands at the pinnacle of the biographical art.
Many have criticized Caro (John Connelly most vociferously) for being overly critical of Johnson. I share this concern and feel he sometimes bends over backwards to "stick it to" Johnson. Caro has said repeatedly that he will deal with LBJ's Presidency with a more charitible outlook and this is to be hoped.
I am an unabashed fan of Lyndon Johnson and this will stand as the definitive biography of him for many years. Though it's caustic and critical, it's so beautifully written you can read it again and again. A masterpiece of biography.
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Format: Paperback
Forget about what your opinion of LBJ is. You still need to read this book. I don't care if you like him, hate him, care nothing for him, or whatever. The way Caro writes a biography is almost breathtaking. Ever wonder what a summer day deep in the Texas Hill country is like? You'll find out in here, and rest assured, it won't put you to sleep.
This book is a great introducation to 20th Century Texas politics. The first few chapters hardly mention LBJ as Caro goes back to LBJ's father and discusses his life. For those of you that have read this book and the 1987 sequel, Means of Ascent, you may be wondering why the third volume covering the 1960s hasn't been written. I have it on good authority that the entire LBJ clan -- family, friends, and close advisors -- have made it clear to Caro that he is unwelcome around them. Hatchet job, or sour grapes because of the truth? Well, read the book and find out. But my guess is that Caro's terrific sources have simply dried up, and he isn't going to put his name on something where the quality is less than this book. Unfortunately for him, that might be near impossible.
One more thing to the quality of this book: there are about a dozen other LBJ books out there ranging from good to just plain bad. Every one of them without exception use this book as a source.
UPDATE: I am extremely happy to be wrong with my guess about Caro's sources drying up. I am looking forward to reading Master of the Senate.
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Format: Paperback
This book, published in 1982, has already achieved a legendary status among history and political buffs. When it was released its author, Robert Caro, won enormous acclaim for his unprecedented research and engrossing writing style - and plenty of criticism for his harsh and unsparing portrait of Lyndon Johnson. Caro literally spent years living in and interviewing people in the arid Texas Hill Country where Johnson was born and raised, and in the process he acquired a level of knowledge about his topic that few other biographers even approach. Like William Manchester's "Last Lion" biographies of Winston Churchill, "The Path to Power" is far more than a simple biography of the young Lyndon Johnson's desperate desire to escape the grinding poverty of rural Texas in the 1930's and achieve power in Washington. Caro writes unforgettably of the Johnson family, the culture and history of the Texas Hill Country, the incredibly corrupt political system in Texas at the time, and of how Johnson both brilliantly and cynically manipulated that system for his own purposes. Caro's descriptions of the people in LBJ's life - from his mother to his wife Lady Bird to fellow Texan Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives and Johnson's mentor in national politics - are superb and detailed.

However, Caro's unsparing portrait of LBJ as a power-obsessed liar and bully who would stop at nothing to succeed greatly offended many of LBJ's associates whom Caro had interviewed, as well as liberal historians who cherished Johnson's activism on Civil Rights and other liberal causes (and who conveniently wanted to forget Johnson's record in Vietnam and elsewhere).
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